On Getting Started and Going Full Time
“Congratulations on your successful business, man! Love your work!” I receive Instagram messages like this or even similar comments from friends who have seen my frequent posts on Instagram or Facebook pretty frequently. For a while, instead of being properly encouraged and humbled, I wanted to have a pity party. I had to check my self-centered reaction that wanted to burst out: “Have you seen the inside of our fridge lately? Or how about the inside of our unfinished shop? Or our house that still needs a lot of finish work after 6 years?” Recently, God convicted me of the fact that I’ve been giving in to the stress lately- becoming “weighed down with the cares of this world”, the Good Book calls it.
The backstory: My dear wife, Atlanta, and I have been married for 6 years and now have 4 small children. We have been largely self-employed for the duration of our marriage. Our main income up until this year was from an Etsy business making fabricated miniature iron beds for dolls, pets, and as infant/toddler photo props, and while the business was truly an answer to prayer- giving us something to do from home- I struggled greatly with it. I was, in short, a bit of an ingrate- though I tried not to be. Atlanta and I have always been history nuts, and over the years, our vision for an old-fashioned homestead has turned into one for a sort of teaching farm- with shop spaces along with the regular workings of a small farm where classes and workshops in historical trades could be held. Although I knew that given enough input the “bed business” could further this dream, I longed to be doing something vocationally that was more in line with the overall vision. Enter blacksmithing.
I have always had an interest in blacksmithing, and when I started building our log house, I knew I wanted to forge all of the hardware needed for it. With my love of homesteading and history, I also wanted to be able to make all the basic tools and hardware needed on a small homestead in the style of, say, the early 1800s. Even though my first attempt to actually forge hardware with some old worn tools my dad had laying around was predictably a disaster, I wasn’t daunted. Guess I’m a little stubborn…
A couple years of marriage, kids, bills, and LOTS of little beds went by. I trudged along with work, but was often distracted by my growing collection of hand tools, frequently giving in to the temptation to buy or restore another tool- then try it out, of course. Most of these tools were various woodworking tools, but I did manage to pick up a couple of important blacksmithing tools at decent prices: a 124-pound anvil and a 75-pound post vise. I bought some coal from a local blacksmith (why I didn’t beg him for lessons I don’t know- but we did become good friends), borrowed my Dad’s rivet forge, set my anvil on a stump, leaned the post vise up, and managed to make some scrolled replacement brackets for my wife’s wood cookstove, a couple of crude nail headers, and a full set of hardware for the double gates in our porch railing. These projects were incredibly difficult, and took a colossal amount of time for mediocre results. But I was on my way.
After seeing my previous projects and listening to me recounting my struggles with work, a good (and wise) friend encouraged me to try to start a blacksmithing side business. He suggested I build a small shed, set up a minimal shop, start developing some hand-forged gun hooks as small and profitable items, and even offered to help me get a website going. It didn’t take long to convince me. I got a shop built in a couple weeks, and started forging hooks. I ruined a lot of steel, and kept a lot of culls to use in our own home, but eventually had something I felt good enough about to offer for sale. In a couple of months, the website was up, and I started to sell a few hooks here and there to friends and Instagram followers. A few more months, and Atlanta opened an Etsy store for our ironwork, and the hooks and hand forged nails we were offering became an occasional supplement to our income. But life is always busy, and the orders could be few and far between at times. Sometimes I would go a month or more without firing up the forge for even a couple hours. I did get the opportunity to do some custom work for a couple of people, including some door hardware, a chandelier, and a few other things. These first-time projects took way too long, but gave a sense of accomplishment and whetted my appetite for more.
Fast forward to last year. A lot of things happened over the course of 2018, but one of the most influential in my thinking was that I listened to multiple audiobooks and podcasts related to business, marketing, and maker-style brands. This inspired me to start trying to be more consistent and interesting with my Instagram posting. I started posting a couple times a day most days, trying to tell the story of our everyday life and making an effort to include frequent videos, especially of the processes of my ongoing projects. Growth was slow on my account at first, but I was shocked when my following went from 5,000 people (which I had slowly accumulated in the previous 4 years since starting my account) to 10,000 in 2 months (it doubled again in the 2 months after that!). It has been a huge encouragement to see the positive response to what we’re doing.
Meanwhile, the forge work had been picking up some, and I was really struggling to stay on top of both our business ventures. Something needed to go. Along with so many other things my wife and I had been learning, these things all came together to make us- kind of suddenly one day- begin to consider quitting the bed business in order to focus on the forge work. This greatly appealed to us both for many reasons, but we tried to take it slow and give the matter some thought and prayer. After that, things really seemed to fall into place and make so much sense. Sometime in early November, we decided to stop taking orders for beds January 1st, 2019. We had been given the business when we married by Atlanta’s parents, and decided to turn it back over to her siblings. Meanwhile, I worked through the Christmas rush, and Atlanta and I worked on a new website. We also started thinking a lot more about how to grow the forge business, and where we wanted to go with it.
I also reached out to a family friend who was a fellow amateur blacksmith, 20 year old Boone Thompson, about coming to help out for a few months as an intern with the goal of becoming part of the business. He was interested, and soon accepted the invite, committing to working with us 5 days a week. One of the first things to do was to expand my tiny, 100-square-foot shop into a space large enough to accommodate 2 people working full time, and also to occasionally hold small classes in. I had no budget for a build, but I had roofing materials on hand already, and access to timber on the family farm and my Dad’s aged Wood-Mizer sawmill to turn the logs into usable lumber. Boone and I spent January through April this year primarily on the shop build- logging, sawmilling, and then constructing. We got the roof on at the end of April, and though it is far from done, we’ve been focusing more on forge work for the last 2 months- which consists of filling orders and building up stock of our small items, doing some small custom jobs, and working on the development of new stock items.
All in all, it has been an incredibly busy and different year, not to mention difficult. Finances have been tighter by far than ever before, as we lost over half our income with the jettison of the bed business and simultaneous loss of some other supplemental income. This coupled with some additional bills have made things extraordinarily tight, and we haven’t even been able to begin to pay our intern a regular wage yet. It has been all too easy to let it all get to me, and start worrying about the seemingly slow growth, how the bills will be paid, and how we’ll all keep going long enough to really get our feet under us as a business. And the way forward will not be easy- we need to finish the shop before cold weather, hone our business plan (and come up with a written version!), up our marketing and product games, find custom work that is a good fit for our trajectory, and so on. But good things don’t usually come easy, and we’ve been surrounded by constant reminders of God’s faithfulness in providing for us- and when we stop to count our blessings, as I’ve been doing more often lately, the list is long. We’ve been blessed with an incredible place to live abundant with natural resources, relatively low living expenses, enough work to keep going, cheap sources for fuel and material for the forge, a long-term vision, and lots of friends that continue to help us in so many ways.
While the way forward may not be easy, and progress never happens as fast as we would wish it to, I am learning to take one day at a time, “letting the day’s troubles be sufficient for the day”, and be super thankful for the exceptional path and opportunities God has given us here at Axe & Anvil. We’re going to plan, yet be flexible. Be diligent, but thankful for the journey and content with what we have. Try to serve and love others through our business- always striving for quality in our products and a better customer experience. Work hard, but look to God for provision, not trusting in our own strength or smarts to bring success. And in all our ways, acknowledge Him- and He WILL direct our paths.